College Later in Life

My Experience and Tips for Returning to College as an Older Student

Book Review: “The Swerve How the World Became Modern”

The Swerve I wrote this book review paper for a class taught by professor Eric Hirschmann at Matanuska-Susitna College. The course was entitled “Failure and Success in Civilization (History 390).”

The course description read as follows:

This course will utilize five primary categories of historical analysis in comparing failure and success among civilizations: environment, economy, technology, political institutions, and religion. We will seek to discover the core reasons as to why certain civilizations and nation states rose to prominence while others declined or failed. In addition, we will examine how recent failures and successes among civilizations and nation states in the modern era are rooted in history. While the course will be centered in a comparative global framework, particular attention will be given to Western Civilization’s ascent to power and influence in the last several centuries.

The instructions for this assignment read as follows:

Write a 1000-1150 word (about 3 pages in 12-point font) essay on a book of your choice approved by the professor in advance. After reading the book, consult biographical information on the author(s) along with at least two published reviews of the book. The author’s other published works may also be consulted for the essay if one wishes. In the essay, write a summary of the author’s thesis together with an analysis of sources, methods, basic assumptions, and level of effectiveness in your opinion. Biographical and published review data should be incorporated judiciously. Please provide a bibliography and endnotes or footnotes.

Begin Book Review

The Swerve: How the World Became Modern, awarded the 2011 Pulitzer Prize and the 2012 National Book Award for Non-Fiction, masterfully combined historical, literary and philosophical sources, to tell the intriguing story of the crucial rediscovery of an ancient poem entitled “On the Nature of Things,” written by the Roman philosopher Lucretius around 50 BCE. It was the rediscovery of Lucretius’ poem, argued author Stephen Greenblatt (Ph.D. Yale), that “unleashed the forces of scientific inquiry,” spawned “aesthetic humanism that characterize[d] the Renaissance,” and caused “substantial … change” for “educated Europeans … from a deeply religious world view to one more secular or scientific.” This, in turn, helped to usher in the Enlightenment and modernity.[1] Greenblatt, current Professor of English and American Literature and Language at Harvard University, began with the story of Venetian Poggio Bracciolini, who in 1417, after becoming unemployed following the ouster of the disgraced Pope John XXIII, went on ancient book hunt in several German monasteries. Relying heavily on his papal credentials to gain the trust of monastery gatekeepers, Poggio, sifted through libraries full of ancient writing. His hunt proved highly successful turning up several of Cicero’s writings, but upon Lucretius’ 1500 year old “On the Nature of Things” he knew he had found something great. He immediately ordered that it be copied.[2]  By the 1450’s, Lucretius’s writings had found their way into “learned Florentine circles, and began to be studied.[3]

Lucretius’ lengthy 7400 line poem, heavily influenced by the 3rd Century BCE Greek philosopher Epicures and his ancient followers, returned to mankind scientific teachings that the Roman Catholic Church tactically attempted to obliterate. Chief among the teachings targeted for elimination was the “elucidation of atomic … fundamentals,” that taught that “all things animate and inanimate,” were “configuration of atomic matter.”[4] The theory of atoms had anti-theistic implications.[5] Epicures and Lucretius were atomists. One such attempt to suppress the belief in atoms occurred on August 1st, 1632 when the Catholic, Jesuit Society of Jesus “strictly prohibited and condemned the doctrine of atoms.”[6] “On the Nature of Things” taught other heretical teachings. Among them were that the soul dies with the body, that there was no afterlife, and that mankind should free itself from the fear produced by a religious system of punishments and rewards after death.” [7] Also central to the tenant of the poem was the “emphasis on the pursuit of modest pleasure and the diminution of pain as the highest good.”[8] This ran completely counter to the teachings of Christianity which, as Greenblatt put it, had become a “cult of bodily pain.” [9] Lucretius

Since its reemergence, the Roman poem has “inspired intellectuals for centuries.”[10] Professor Greenblatt, drawing on an impressive twenty-three page bibliography, demonstrated Lucretius’s influence on Renaissance thinkers. Among those influenced was Niccolò Machiavelli. Machiavelli, the Florence-based historian, diplomat, philosopher and humanist handwrote an entire copy of Lucretius’ poem. Michel de Montaigne (1533-1592), the French Renaissance writer “covered his printed copy [of the poem] with annotations.”[11]  Greenblatt also retold the story of the “trial and the burning” at the stake of Giordano Bruno (1548-1600).  Bruno, the Italian mathematician, astronomer and philosopher that fell victim to the Inquisition, clearly “embraced the philosophy of Lucretius” and thus “aimed at liberating man from the fear of death and the gods.”[12] Greenblatt used Bruno’s emotionally-charged death by fire to “add drama” and to emphasize his “book’s moral that culture and free inquiry must repeatedly be rescued from the gothic prison of Christianity.”[13] Others who either embraced or were influenced by Lucretius were Cicero, Galileo, Edward Burke, Emmanuel Kant, and Thomas Jefferson. Jefferson, an owner of eight copies of On the Nature of Things, “called himself an Epicurean” and his “pursuit of happiness … bears a Lucretian tinge.”[14]

The majority of the book reviews for The Swerve were overwhelmingly positive. Greenblatt was complimented repeatedly for his extensive research, and understandable writing style which helped bring this story, so important to the progress of western civilization, “from the halls of academia to the general populace.”[15] J.S. Louzonis, in his review for the academic library review publication Choice, praised Greenblatt for the additional light shed on “medieval book production,” the conventions of “life in a monastic scriptorium, papal politics” in the 15th-century, and the overall dangers of “theological heterodoxy.”[16]

Accompanying the positive, were also critical comments for Greenblatt. Matthew Ainsworth, writing for Skeptic, claimed that some of Greenblatt’s attempts to show the “poem’s cultural impact” was “presumptive” and not necessary. There is no doubt, according to Ainsworth, that the “number of authors [the poem] influenced, [was] great, but Greenblatt went overboard with “puffery.” The book’s “puffery” made Ainsworth “cringe.” Some of the influences on certain historical figures were unquestionably solid, yet some were “tenuous” and “speculative.”[17] For example, while the evidence that Shakespeare read Lucretius was “strong but circumstantial,” Ainsworth took issue with Greenblatt’s need to include Darwin and Einstein on the list. In his book, Greenblatt argued “that if Darwin and Einstein were not influenced directly,” then their work was still reminiscent of Lucretius due to his “absorption into modern thought.”[18] This, for Ainsworth, was unnecessary puffery, but the extent of “puffery … was not as egregious … as [he] had thought before [he] read the book. Ainsworth review was overall positive, however, stating that his criticisms were “small ones” and that Greenblatt’s “graceful multilayered philosophical history” was “erudite” and “intellectually stimulating.”[19]

The Swerve was masterfully written and is pure gold for those who love history, philosophy, learning and the theme of “tension between religion and science.” Greenblatt’s prose is beautifully written, transporting readers through more than two thousand year of history, and traversing many parts of the classic world and medieval Europe. It would be a wild stretch to claim (and Greenblatt does not) that Lucretius and the book hunter Poggio Bracciolini were solely responsible for the Renaissance, because they were only a part of the “fabric that dared think differently.” [20] They, like many others, valued science, fought against religious superstition, and subscribed to various tenants of humanism, but most importantly they were a prominent part of a “tectonic shift in Western culture.”[21]

 

 

Bibliography

Ainsworth, Matthew F. 2012. “How the World Swerved Toward Science.” Skeptic 56-57,64.

Barbour, Reid. 2011. “The Return of Lucretius to Renaissance Florence.” Philological Quarterly. 90.4 481.

Bok, Sissela Ann. 2012. “The Nature of Things: an Ancient Poem’s Appeal.” The American Scholar 81.1 117.

Brezinski, Rachel. 2012. “The Swerve: How the World Became Modern.” Humanist, Vol. 72, Issue 3.

Greenblatt, Stephen. 2011. The Swerve: How the World Became Modern. New York: Norton.

Louzonis, J.S. 2012. “Greenblatt, Stephen. The Swerve: How the World Became Modern, 49.7.” CHOICE: Current Reviews for Academic Libraries 1256.

Quint, David. 2011. “Humanism as Revolution.” New Republic, Vol. 242 Issue 15 36-39.

 

[1] Reid Barbour, “The Return of Lucretius to Renaissance Florence.” Philological Quarterly. 90.4 (2011) 481.

[2] J.S. Louzonis, “Greenblatt, Stephen. The Swerve: How the World Became Modern,” CHOICE: Current Reviews for Academic Libraries. 49.7 (2012): 1256.

[3] David Quint, “Humanism as Revolution,” New Republic, Vol. 242 Issue 15 (2011): 36.

[4] David Quint, “Humanism as Revolution,” New Republic, Vol. 242 Issue 15 (2011): 36.

[5] Matthew F. Ainsworth, “How the World Swerved Toward Science,” Skeptic, Vol. 17 Issue 3 (2012): 57.

[6] Stephen Greenblatt, The Swerve: How the World Became Modern (New York: Norton, 2011).

[7] Quint, “Humanism as Revolution,” 37.

[8] Sissela Bok “The Nature of Things: an Ancient Poem’s Appeal.” The American Scholar 81.1 (2012): 117.

[9] Quint, “Humanism as Revolution,” 38.

[10] Ainsworth, “Swerved Toward Science,” 59.

[11] Quint, “Humanism as Revolution,” 39.

[12] Giordano Bruno, Cause, Principle and Unity, edited by R.J. Blackwell (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1998), introduction.

[13] Quint, “Humanism as Revolution,” 37.

[14] Quint, “Humanism as Revolution,” 39.

[15]  Rachel Brezinski, Review of “The Swerve: How the World Became Modern.” Humanist, Vol. 72, Issue 3 (2012).

[16] Louzonis, “Review: The Swerve: 1256.

 

[17] Ainsworth, “Swerved Toward Science,” 64.

[18] Greenblatt, The Swerve: 262 and Ainsworth, “Swerved Toward Science,” 64.

[19] Ainsworth, “Swerved Toward Science,” 56.

[20] Ainsworth, “Swerved Toward Science,” 57.

[21] Quint, “Humanism as Revolution,” 37.

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